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Barry Mills Meets the Parents

November 3, 2011

Family members attending last week’s Parents Weekend had no shortage of questions for President Mills about the activities, policies, and other details of life at Bowdoin.

Last weekend was Parents Weekend at Bowdoin, and we had hundreds of parents, siblings, families, and friends visiting the campus. The weekend is always more stressful for students than many families recognize because, although our students are happy to have their families on campus, they find themselves with the added responsibility of entertaining their loved ones at a time when there is a lot going on academically, athletically, and socially. Complicating things even more, it was the weekend before Halloween and it actually snowed (although not too much).

For the last ten years, I have continued a tradition of meeting with parents and families bright and early on Saturday morning for a 90-minute conversation about what is happening on campus. Daggett Lounge is standing room only by the end, with about 250 on hand. The only questions off limits are those about the particular darling son or daughter of a family member—we save those for later. Otherwise, we talk about whatever people have on their minds.

I don’t do this by myself—the questions vary from year to year, so I bring reinforcements along from the faculty, dean’s office, health center, security, athletics and other offices on campus.

Family Q&A with President Mills in Daggett Lounge

The participants in the room demonstrate why Bowdoin is such a special place. At most colleges and universities, parents and family members come for this sort of weekend only once. Bowdoin families come all four years. In the audience last Saturday morning were families representing students of every class at Bowdoin and even some classes that have graduated. Bowdoin families are engaged and remarkably loyal.

Unlike previous years, the questions this time around were much more focused on a couple of specific and timely subjects (although these two questions always arise). People wanted to know whether Bowdoin students who graduated in the past couple of years are getting into graduate and professional schools. And, are they getting JOBS?

I assured folks that our students are being admitted to excellent graduate and professional programs. As I told the parents, for most of our students, post-Bowdoin education is a must because they will need the education or the credential imparted by graduate or professional school in order to ultimately attain the level of responsibility they seek. I also noted that growth in real income over the recent past has only occurred for folks with advanced degrees. However, I strongly cautioned the parents to talk with their children about the amount of debt students would be taking on to go to graduate or professional school.

Our decision to go “no-loan” in 2008 has proven to be all the more wise, as students across America find themselves graduating with the added strain of large amounts of debt and limited job prospects. Bowdoin students are quite advantaged because we replaced the loan component of financial aid with grants and no longer require borrowing as part of our financial aid packages. Our students can at least make the job choice or the post-grad education choice without debt we required them to amass. This is an important statement by the College about our values and about our belief in creating opportunity.

As for jobs, I was pleased to report that our students are finding jobs, and nearly all who recently graduated are working. I think people were surprised, but I explained that we are in a different environment because of the Bowdoin network. Our alumni and our parents personally help our students find a place post-Bowdoin. The alumni network is tight, engaged, loyal, and eager to answer the call of a Bowdoin student looking for work. These networking opportunities are real, and they produce.

As part of this ongoing and valuable effort, I encouraged our parents and families—and I encourage our alumni—to provide more internship opportunities for Bowdoin students. These internships are the most direct pathway to a job. Now, I’m sure these students will change jobs a few times before they finally settle down, but our students “launch” from Bowdoin very productively.

I will write again soon about some of the other things we discussed on Saturday. A recurring subject at these sessions is the high cost of college. We also spend a significant portion of the meeting each year assuring family members that we will continue to provide the high level of services they expect. There’s an obvious connection here, but more on that next time.